July 23, 2012

To Be Opened January 23, 2013

Call this a time capsule with a quick ‘open on’ date. 

In New England, there is a very short window during the summer – measured in weeks - when almost everything in the vegetable garden is simultaneously ripe for picking.  Today was one of those days.  As a result, tonight’s dinner was one of those meals that deserves to be memoralized.

As an ‘appetizer’, there were five perfect ears of corn, so sweet they needed no spice to enhance their flavor.  Picked at 6 p.m., they were eaten before 7:30.  A little butter and they were heavenly.  That appetizer course was followed by a second amuse bouche: a pair of artichokes.  Most artichokes are flown in from cool marine valleys in California.  This one was ‘vernalized’ beginning in February and planted in mid-May.  The two artichokes from the harvest were small but incredibly delicious.

There was a salad made of lettuce, tomatoes, arugula, beets and beet greens – all picked today. There could have been carrots to go into the salad, but they would have been too much.

For the main course there was a small piece of steak, and accompanying that steak was a mountain of chard and green beans picked that afternoon. There was also fresh yellow and green squash, but we were too full.  It was cooked to be eaten at a later date - like tomorrow.

Apart from the steak and the butter (oh, all right, and the gin, tonic and lime), everything we ate came from our garden.  We ate until we were full; no need for dessert.  I know that in Boston, there are restaurants that charge a significant premium for such ‘guaranteed localvore’ fare; our meal was paid for with our sweat and gardening smarts.

Absent this post, tonight’s meal would likely have been forgotten by January.  This is a meal I want to remember.  To the glory of July 23!

July 22, 2012

Pickin' Time

July 19 was a memorable date in our vegetable garden.  We picked our first ears of corn (‘Quickie’) and our first cherry tomatoes.  We also picked our umpteenth pound of green beans, yellow and green summer squash, beets, chard and lettuce.  We are, in short, self-sufficient in the vegetable department for the next six weeks.

There are four squares of corn, each planted a week apart, which should collectively provide more than a hundred ears of sweet corn; plus six ‘producing’ summer squash plants and a like number of seedlings that will yield somewhere between a hundred pounds and a ton of zucchini.  There are plenty of leeks, fennel and carrots to be harvested in September and half a dozen winter squash vines that are threatening to overrun anything in their path.  There is an eight-foot-by-twenty-foot plot of sweet potatoes growing vigorously (at least the greens are growing; we have no idea what is happening underneath the soil). 

These tomatoes, hard and
green now, will be ripe in
just two weeks
The okra plants – ten of them – are now a foot high and, by early August, will start throwing off pods.  The sweet peppers are small and hard now but will grow rapidly and ripen through August.  There is a Chinese cabbage that Betty planted on a whim that is thriving.  The tomatoes, especially are starting to get serious.  It was a pair of cherry tomatoes that ripened under last week’s blistering heat, but now the large heirlooms and hybrids are catching up quickly.  Absent the appearance of late blight or other disease, we will have a bumper tomato crop and be in lycopene overdrive until well into September.

So why, exactly, do two people need a 1200 square foot vegetable garden?  Our freezer already groans with the bags of processed peas from plants that have now been pulled out.  We have green beans to last us well into the winter yet, just two days ago, Betty replaced the peas with another row of beans.

Part of the reason we grow so much is the joy of eating fresh vegetables every evening – including a few all-vegetarian meals.  Another aspect is the sharing.  Part of last week’s harvest of summer squash went to a community food pantry.  Other vegetables go to friends and neighbors.  A plate of fresh-picked green beans with a dill mayonnaise was a hit at a party.

This is our first-ever effort
to grow sweet potatoes. 
Right now, we have a lot
of greenery.  Only time will
tell if there are sweet
potatoes underneath.
We also have the pleasure of the company of a community of fellow vegetable gardeners.  One of our gardening neighbors is brand new to the process; another has graduated this year from a half-plot to a full one; and a third jumped at the opportunity to claim an adjoining second plot.  It’s a joy to talk to them, hear their ideas, and share their excitement.

And there’s the opportunity to share knowledge.  Any trip to the garden inevitably produces a round of questions from novice gardeners.  Some evenings, a planned ten-minute foray to pick enough lettuce and arugula for dinner salads turns into a 45-minute-long, hands-on seminar on the value of row covers, the right way to water deeply, or pest identification.  It seems as though there’s always a crowd at our garden.

Vegetable gardening is, in reality, a short season in New England.  We put up a fence in late April and plant cold-weather crops in early May, but for that first month there’s nothing to look at but black earth marked with stakes and string (plus an early crop of weeds).  It is only in early June, with the planting of the ‘warm weather’ crops that that there is sufficient greenery to give hope that there will indeed be a crop.  July and August are the garden’s glory.  By the beginning of September, the garden will look tired.  We’re enjoying it while we can.

July 16, 2012

The Class of 2012

That's me at Great Dixter, providing
scale to one of Christopher Lloyd's
container garden groupings
You can blame it in Christopher Lloyd.  No, not the mad scientist of Back to the Future; the other Christopher Lloyd, who made Great Dixter a ‘worth-a-journey’ garden in East Sussex.  Betty and I were there in May 2004 and it was on that day that Betty fell in love with container gardening.  And, not just pots with multiple kinds of flowering annals in them, but the idea of massing containers to create portable landscapes.  That’s me, at Great Dixter, providing scale for one of Lloyd’s compositions. (Double-click on any image to see it at full-screen size.)

This container is on our back
deck, and consists of coleus,
supertunias, a red grass and a
flowering maple.
And so each year we observe a ritual around our garden.  In early May, we go into our basement and retrieve maybe a dozen beautiful large pots from our collection.  We place them in the turnaround of our driveway.  Betty then goes off in search of annuals and perennials to fill them.  She creates a dozen exquisite containers; they are sited according to their color and texture.  We also pull another dozen plant-bearing containers that we have overwintered in our garage (a subject explored in depth in ‘The January Thaw’).  These containers, too, are placed around the property.  Once those two dozen containers are completed, Betty pronounces herself satisfied.  She is done for the year.

There are more than a dozen
containers in this grouping,
providing a seamless transition
between our driveway and a
perennial garden.
But there is more to the ritual.  When she is done I point to the leftover annuals and perennials that were not used in the creation of those containers and say it is a shame that we can’t have a few more.  After giving me her ‘why do you do this to me’ look, we go down into the basement and pull up a few more pots. 

At the same time, Betty does roughly six container gardening presentations for garden clubs and civic organizations (not including two at the Boston Flower & Garden Show this year).  Each demonstration requires that she put together five such containers.  She purchases more plants plus the lightweight pots that she uses for “road work”.  Inevitably, she brings home a few pots that she later judges to be “too heavy” or “not right” for her demonstrations.  She inevitably buys more plants than she will need for a demonstration in order to have exactly the right 'look' for the containers in her demonstration.  Oh, and she will go to sales when quality garden centers such as Andrew’s, Weston and Russell’s start marking down their plant.

Containers, many using
succulents, soften the sidewalk
and vary its width.
I will bring the preamble of this piece to a merciful conclusion:  right now, there are 61 containers scattered around our property.  Christopher Lloyd would be proud.

There’s a loropetalum that appears to have settled into its container for a long, happy life.  The acuba we purchased in Maryland last year quickly outgrew its container and, in the process of re-potting it, Betty found a daughter shrub which now has its own pot.  Our crape myrtle and Cape plumbago also are thriving in seasonal glory; Zone 8 shrubs summering in a Zone 5B world.

On the front porch, five containers
provide a mix of formal and
informal elements.
But it is the mixed containers that are the ‘wow’ part of the collection.  Now that July is here, they are in prolific flower and visitors can see what Betty had in mind when she first started putting plants together two months ago.  We are still mixing containers to provide height and texture contrast.  A water garden – actually, a four-container water garden – was completed just  this morning.

At a driveway turnaround, five
containers mix annuals
with shrubs (the acuba and
These portable gardens provide bridges to our ‘permanent’ gardens, softening buffers for sidewalks and driveways, and focal points to pull the eye to corners of the garden that might otherwise escape attention.

They require maintenance: flowers need to be deadheaded just as in any garden; ‘thugs’ need to be trimmed back less they take over.  And, on hot summer days, each container can take a gallon or more of water to keep roots cool and damp. 

This container, likely in its last
year of use, mixes caladiums
with a prolifically flowering
And, finally, some containers are
there just to draw the eye to
corners of the property.

July 3, 2012

Why Vegetable Gardeners Are Optimists

Vegetable gardeners are optimists.  They have to be because, otherwise, they’d never lift a hoe again after they saw their first tomato hornworm.  
We have a plot at a community vegetable garden in our town.  It’s a sunny, 1200-square-foot space that has some of the richest soil in New England.  Because we also ‘run’ the garden (we thought we were joining a committee but it turned out no one else was on it), we field all the questions and problems from our fifty-plus fellow gardeners.  As you read on, please keep in mind that this is a good year for vegetable gardening.
This is a cucumber beetle.  It can make
a plant disappear overnight.
·         Everyone is coping with an infestation of cucumber beetles.  The comments started in mid-May that cucumber vine leaves had little holes in them.  By mid-June, plants were disappearing overnight.  By now, any squash, cucumber, or soybean plant that isn’t being grown under a row cover is an endangered species.
·         Also, the first of the Mexican bean beetles have been spotted.  This charming pest chomps on green beans and anything that looks like a green bean (the bugs are apparently far-sighted), including mung beans, soybeans and alfalfa.  You know you have a Mexican bean beetle infestation because, one day, you come out to your garden and all you have are skeletons of leaves.  Again, row covers are the lone salvation unless you’re not averse to dowsing your vegetables with exceedingly non-organic bug killers.
And this is a squash borer.  One of
the nastiest pests in the garden.
·         Yesterday, someone asked Betty about the cute little orange and gray moths on her squash plants.  Betty patiently explained that they are the adult manifestations of Melitta curcurbitae, otherwise known as the squash vine borer.  When two adults get together and make whoopee, they’ll lay a mass of eggs under a summer or winter squash vine.  Two few weeks later, there go the zucchini, butternut squash, and melons.
·         Two weeks ago, it was reported that a nemesis called late blight had been found as close as Pennsylvania.  Late blight, which is endemic in the South, can kill a tomato plant in a few days.  This morning, I learned that it has been spotted in two towns less than ten miles away.  There is no 'cure' for late blight.  If the fungus spores reach our garden, our tomatoes are goners.
Because of the threat of these pests, our garden this year looks like a Red Cross aid station.  White row covers shield our green beans, zucchini, yellow squash and a couple of other things that have been cloaked so long that I’ve forgotten what’s underneath them.
Our floating row covers keep susceptible vegetables safe
from pests.  It also makes our garden look like a Red
Cross first aid station.
Yet, despite the alarming reports noted above, this is turning out to be a great year for vegetables.  Not just ‘knee-high by the Fourth of July’, our early corn already shows tassels and we’ll likely pick our first ears before the end of July.  The cooler-than-normal May and June means that our lettuce and arugula haven’t bolted and are producing prolifically.  Our peas produce pods by the gazillion and we’ve pulled beets that have reached the size of softballs without turning woody.  Our basil is dark green and already redolent of the citral that gives it that wonderful scent.  Rainfall has been well-spaced and the heat blasts have been of short duration.
Of course, all of this can change overnight.  Our ten tomato plants look perfect right now, but Late Blight – a scourge that wiped out virtually the entire Northeast tomato crop in 2010 – has been found as close as Pennsylvania.  Fungus could discover the basil and corn borers could lay waste to our crop.
The only way to keep your sanity when you grow vegetables is to assume the best.  We plant, we weed, we pick off the bad bugs, we water and we fertilize.  We cross our fingers and imagine the taste of that first tomato and fresh-picked sweet corn.  Gardeners count their wins, not their losses.